What is the origin of the word and how did it come to mean "complete and ready to be used immediately"?

3 Answers 3



1650s, "jailer," from turn (v.) + key (n.). In reference to a job that only has to be done only once, it is recorded from 1934. The notion probably is of something that can be accomplished with a single turn of a key.

Its usage as 'complete and ready to use' is relatively recent.

The term turnkey is also often used in the technology industry, most commonly to describe pre-built computer "packages" in which everything needed to perform a certain type of task (e.g. audio editing) is put together by the supplier and sold as a bundle. This often includes a computer with pre-installed software, various types of hardware, and accessories. Such packages are commonly called appliances. A website with a ready-made solutions and some configurations is called a turnkey website.

Turnkey products are synonymous to "off-the-shelf" solutions and not customized.

  • Wonderful! "Turnkey products are synonymous to "off-the-shelf" solutions and not customized." This is exactly what I am looking for!
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 6:26
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    Basically, all you need to do is turn the key and it works. Rather like starting a car.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 9:25
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    "Turnkey" and "customized" are not mutually exclusive. "Turnkey" can be used to describe a fully customized solution, system, or product--as long as all the pieces are in place so the customer or client can use it from the outset. To use a similar metaphor, the product as delivered to the customer works "right out of the box."
    – GMB
    Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 12:32
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    "Turnkey products are synonymous to "off-the-shelf" solutions and not customized." I would beg to differ. For large systems, such as chemical plants, turnkey systems are in fact highly customized, and it is this customization that makes them turnkey. That is, all aspects of the customers needs are dealt with, particularly the interfaces between different subsystems, so that the entire system can be operated without fiddling with the various parts. Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 0:55
  • Sir, would you plz move your comments to an answer? I'd be happy to upvote for you. @WhatRoughBeast
    – Kinzle B
    Commented Jun 8, 2014 at 13:23

in the early 1900's Turn key was used to in places where the new Edison light bulb was being used, in place of lanterns. Notices were put up that read "This room is equipped with Edison Electric Light. Do not attempt to light with match. Simply turn key on wall by door." It stands to reason that it was a simply approach to a complicated thing.

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    How do you know this? Did you get it from a reliable source? Can you share that source? As it stands, this could just be another piece of urban folklore.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 16:08
  • @DanBron Good question, though I actually discovered lots of examples online, for example: london-walking-tours.co.uk/secret-london/electric-light-ucl.htm
    – Sam Dutton
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 15:53
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    @SamDutton Haha! Now there’s a delayed reply. You can add this evidence to your answer to improve it, but while I don’t question such signs exist, I am not convinced this is the origin of the phase.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 15:58

Google's Ngram viewer (for usage in books) is worth a look: books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=turnkey solution, turnkey project

There appear to be mentions of 'turnkey project' from 1919, and a big rise in usage for 'turnkey project' and 'turnkey solution' that kicked off in the early 1960s.

Of course, the word 'turnkey' (as in gaoler/jailer') goes back much further: books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=turnkey

Google NGram viewer for turnkey project and turnkey solution

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